Monday, 23 May 2016

A Book Launch With A Kick And Sambal On The Side

Wesak Day 2016 also saw the launch of Sambal on the Side ... With a Kick by Brenda Benedict at MPH Nu Sentral, Kuala Lumpur, around 3pm.

Published by MPH Group Publishing, Sambal on the Side is a collection of selected articles from the writer and editorial consultant's long-running column of the same name, published in the local English-language daily The Star.

Sambal on the Side, sitting pretty among the props for
the Instagram contest

Edea Nor, from radio station Capital FM, emceed the launch, which was attended by colleagues from The Star, family members and friends. The programme included an Instagram book-styling competition, where the public was invited to take and Instagram creative photo compositions with the book; prizes include a RM30 voucher from MPH Bookstores.

Those who bought the book were also entitled to a free jar of sambal tumis, courtesy of cookbook author Marina Mustafa, who also published several cookbooks with MPH.

Brenda wrote the pieces in the book to deal with the discomfort of being uprooted from place to place as the wife of an expat. Husband Oliver Haas, a German native, had a job that sent him around the globe. So far, the couple have been to Vietnam, South Africa, Washington D.C. and Germany.

Emcee Edea Nor gets the crowd going for the event

"Neither expatriate mobility training nor travel guides adequately prepared me for the mundane matters of rooting and uprooting, and they tended to focus more on the 'what' and not the 'how'," said Brenda in the book. "So, I had to immerse myself mindfully into a 'discomfort zone', resulting in a fortnightly dispatch home of yet another occasion of having 'been-there-and-muddled-through-that.'"

Sambal, that spicy, sometimes pungent condiment known to many in Southeast Asia, became a balm for her homesickness, but on some days that pang needed something more potent.

"It was midwinter in Frankfurt," she recalled, "I had been horribly homesick and I was desperately seeking an avenue to vent. She pitched the idea for "a column about being a Malaysian abroad and trying to reconcile my 'Malaysianness' with an alien environment."

The author, Brenda Benedict (left) with the emcee. The talk show format
was decided upon for what would be called a "book launch party".

Brenda contacted The Star, and the editor of the paper's weekend supplement then, Sharifah Intan, gave the nod. Her first "Sambal on the Side" column was published in the Weekender section of The Star on 18 February 2006 and has been a staple in the newspaper ever since.

With regard to writing, Brenda started young. As the youngest child she was "left to her own devices", and she turned to books. Then, a teacher, the "fashionable" Ms Ho, introduced her to the late Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole. That was when the writing bug bit.

"I started fantasising ... imagined myself as "Adrianne Mole", lah," Brenda revealed. She also tended to rant in her own diary, particularly after a scolding from her dad.

"Did your dad ever read your stuff?" Edea asked.

"I think he did," Brenda speculated. "Curi-curi lah."

So much energy, these two

Brenda returned to Malaysia to launch her book. Mr Haas stayed behind at Bonn to unpack, having moved there from the United States. Poor fellow's a huge fan of Malaysian food, we were told, and he's making his despair at being at home known to the wife.

The author revealed that she would come home to wherever home was with a luggage (or was it two?) of Malaysian goodies, which she would hide somewhere. A typical day at work would begin with some white coffee from Ipoh, which her husband only gets to sample "on weekends".

The launch was special because 2016 marked the column's tenth year. Her friends and some family members had been asking for a compilation of her columns. Then, Oliver said she should put it together, too.

They brainstormed the concepts for the book, including categories for the articles that would go into it. The pair settled for ingredients for sambal, and Brenda turned to her social media network for seven things that every sambal should have.

Brenda Benedict signs a copy of her book after the interview

For the cover design and assorted graphics, MPH Publishing turned to a frequent collaborator. Arif Rafhan Othman was the artist behind Zan Azlee's non-fiction comic, Adventures of a KL-ite in Afghanistan.

The remarkable thing with Sambal on the Side was that Arif delivered what everybody wanted with the first drafts.

The artist was invited to share the limelight towards the end of the interview session, where he shared his experiences working on the book and what he hoped the book would achieve.

"There's a strong Malaysian vibe to this book," Arif said, "and I hope that readers will learn more about Malaysia from it, and not just the food."

Artist Arif Rafhan Othman (centre) takes the stage with the author and the
host. Brenda also showed off her fan - or is the interview heating up?

Brenda, meanwhile, wants readers to take a leaf out of her book and, once in a while, get out of their comfort zones and into "discomfort zones". "Only when you're in this discomfort zone, will you learn about your hidden strengths ... that's when your hidden strengths come to the fore."

She also espoused the uniqueness of the Malaysian melting pot and hopes that fellow Malaysians would be aware of and help to preserve it.

Other highlights of the launch included story about Vietnam, which Brenda calls the most challenging country she was in. Despite being briefed about the culture in Vietnam, the couple didn't seem prepared for the Vietnamese's fascination with Caucasians, the restaurant with all the snakes and stuff in glass jars, and a pesky rooster whose services were most certainly not required.

"When I came out of the car [the Vietnamese] were pointing and
laughing, because they weren't prepared for the hair!"

At the behest of some audience members, the host and Arif, the author gamely belted out a few verses from an Alleycats song. Her husband is a huge fan of this 1980s Malaysian band (is he really German?) and Brenda was a member of a singing group a la the Supremes in Germany, called the ... "The Discordant Aunties"?

Not only did she have the looks but the vocal chops as well. Unfortunately, she couldn't remember the rest of the lyrics.

The event was capped with a cake-cutting to celebrate the column's tenth anniversary, followed with a book-signing and wefie session with the author.

The cake - baked by the author's niece - is not a lie.

To Brenda, Arif, Edea, the folks at MPH @ Nu Sentral and all those who attended and bought copies of the book, Terima kasiii~!


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